Joell Ortiz: 'I Refuse To Compromise Me'
The Brooklyn rapper spoke to Microphone Check about the music business, the old neighborhood, staying in the studio, the appeal of supergroups, the kids and a theoretical campaign to be Mayor of New York City.
ALI SHAHEED MUHAMMAD: Joell Ortiz, what up?
JOELL ORTIZ: What's up? How y'all feeling, man?
MUHAMMAD: I'm feeling great that you're in the house.
ORTIZ: Thanks for having me guys — and gals.
FRANNIE KELLEY: I do appreciate that.
MUHAMMAD: I want to go back to what you were just talking about a moment ago, cause I think it's actually important. We were talking about The Beatles and listening to The Beatles and admiring their journey from not just being musicians but being great business people. And you were saying you were wondering if they had a uncle or somebody that really, like, give them the business on how to move through life and make things simplified. So you were saying --
ORTIZ: I was just saying I frequent the hood, and I wondered how my journey would have changed if I had someone that was like, "Yo, these are the things you need to pay attention to right now, like good credit or saving money — just little things." I was telling you about, like, I remember the first time Sprint let me get a phone line. I was like, "Yes, I got my own line," then I ran it up to $500 and I was just like, "Alright, cool my Sprint is off, but I'll just go for the AT&T." It's just that mindset. No one was there to just --
MUHAMMAD: To tell you you won't be able to get a house cause you — when you ready to go get your crib cause you straightened everything out, you got money to put down on the crib, or pay for a crib, and it's like, "What? That Sprint bill?"
ORTIZ: "That Sprint bill? What do you mean? That store isn't even open."
KELLEY: Yeah, exactly.
ORTIZ: I'll give him his money. I mean, you don't really know. I just wonder if it's cause there's so much talent in the hood. They're just not in the know. They're just not in the know. They find out --
MUHAMMAD: The hard way.
ORTIZ: When it's already damaged, done, you know what I'm saying. So for The Beatles to be so business-savvy and already — you know, they had to be hinting, somebody had to give 'em a little hunch, a little, "Maybe you guys should try to own your masters." Even when I first got into music, I didn't even know what that meant. You know, you just coming off the block and it's like, "Alright rap to the beat. And try to, like, develop." And, "This is an ad-lib." It was just all art stuff. I wonder if somebody was like, "Besides art, let's go into the other room and talk about business, because now you're a business as well." That came way later, after I owed taxes. You get what I'm saying?
MUHAMMAD: Yeah, absolutely. Even some — you may have a manager or someone who's been there, they have a few artists they represented, they got years in the business and they'll run you through the course of, "Cool, let's get you a business manager." Now, that's cool, but if you 19, or 18,19, you don't really know what that means, even.
MUHAMMAD: Even my personal experience is that business managers can really mess your situation up as well.
ORTIZ: Oh yeah. Oh yeah. And in my case – not to cut you off — me and my manager were both brand new.
ORTIZ: You know, this is just somebody from my neighborhood that believed in me, that was like, "Alright, you're gonna stop doing that stuff you're doing and you're gonna go make music, cause I heard you rap." Like, "You're crazy." Both of us doing this journey. Then someone else came in and was like, "Oh, alright. Yo, so who manages?" "He manages me." Cause he was funding it. It all organically — there was no, like, there wasn't even a plan. It was just like, "Yo, you could blow up. Trust me." That was the plan. So we both got the learning experience together, so to say.
MUHAMMAD: Is it safe to maybe just put out there that — because when you get into the music business, and I don't know if this was your experience, but there was always, "Yo, go read this Business and Music by Donald –" there's the Donald Passman and then there's the big Business in Music, big voluminous book the size of I don't know.
KELLEY: What was the book you mentioned to Future — to somebody? You mentioned this to somebody and then he called me, the guy who wrote it called me.
MUHAMMAD: The guy who wrote the book called you?
ORTIZ: That's amazing.
KELLEY: Yeah, I think I forgot to tell you about this.
MUHAMMAD: That is crazy.
KELLEY: No, you told Bibby.
MUHAMMAD: I told Lil' Bibby to read — oh man, I forgot the name.
KELLEY: And we said, "Is there an audio book?" And we were like, "We're sure there's an audio book. It's for musicians." And he was like, "No." [Note: There is now!]
MUHAMMAD: It's called The Artist's Guide to Success in the Music Business.
ORTIZ: I've seen that.
MUHAMMAD: And that's Loren Weisman. Because those are the sort of things that you get, but it doesn't really — when you're reading it, you're 18, 19, you're like, "What is this? Is this trigonometry?" Is there a future? Maybe you will author up such a book to give someone — not only from the music business perspective, but just like what you were talking about.
ORTIZ: I can't say, "Yes, there will," but if I did do something like that, it would definitely be like baby food. I'd word it in such a way — cause as fresh and pure as I was when I got into it, had I run into something like the Weisman dude wrote, it would have been like a different language. So if I did it, it would be like, "Alright, this is what a master means. When trying to hire a business manager, these are the things you should look for." And like A, B, C, D, E, F, G. Because if I would have ran into that book, I would have threw it out. I would have probably broke weed up on it. Like "This is too crazy." Even to this day, when my attorney tries to explain something to me, he always looks at me and goes, "OK, look." Cause I tell him, "Tell me everything as if I know nothing." That's how you get jammed up — with the language.
ORTIZ: You understand? So like, "Alright, so what does that mean? So how many album and what's the commitment and how do we get and what's a breach?" Give me everything, everything. So if I wrote one of those books and I was talking to those kids, the first thing I would talk to them about is just responsibility as a whole. Like, "Alright, this is what you should worry about first." And first thing I would tell 'em is "Forget the — I'ma get into the business later — but become the best artist you could be. Cause none of the stuff I'm about to tell you later on in the book will even matter if you're not as best as you can be. Focus on that." And then there will be, you know the chapters, it will progress until I got into stuff, but it would be so not complicated. I'd try my best to do that.
MUHAMMAD: Do you think that your journey was stressed, or did you feel the stress at any point, because there was no one you could go to?
ORTIZ: I'm still stressed.
ORTIZ: I'm still stressed. I don't know if that goes away. Only because I'm a restless soul. I set such short-term goals. The minute it's accomplished, there's something else I gotta do, you know what I'm saying? I'm not the guy that's like — if like you ask me, "Alright, so, Joell Ortiz in 2020, what's he doing?" I don't — I can tell you September, October. I'm routing a tour. Like, that gets accomplished. And then once that — the minute that's over, even while it's happening, I'm already thinking about what is needed to move the brand into a different — especially since me personally — and I know I'm bouncing around but I don't care, I just love to --
MUHAMMAD: I'm following you.
ORTIZ: Yeah. I'm a separate entity in a rap group, too, Slaughterhouse. And Joell Ortiz, the solo artist, took a backseat to pay attention to that. So I feel like as a solo artist now, I am — I'm brand new again.
KELLEY: Yeah, feels that way out here.
ORTIZ: Like I'm semi-household — people, you mention the name, they, "Oh I – yeah." But it's not — I've brought my core to the Slaughterhouse, and they appreciate that, and they'll always be my core when I double back and do my stuff. But I'm about to make brand new fans all over again. I'm really treating it as if I didn't have – I wasn't a part of this thing already. That's the only way for me to really not be bored, to be honest with you.
MUHAMMAD: So then what does that look like, or sound like, considering that you do have a rich history? If you're going in brand new, do you bring what preceded that or is it everything's just raw, just fresh, everything's fresh.
ORTIZ: It's honest, right? And I just feel like no matter what your subject matter is — everybody just always will have a certain respect for honesty. This new album, House Slippers, is honest.
KELLEY: But it's not called Honest.
ORTIZ: It's not. It's called House Slippers. It's called House Slippers because I feel like this is — when I got my house slippers on, I'm the most comfortable I can be. This is what this album is for me. I'm just letting every — I don't have a problem telling you what's been going on. I don't have — I've grown in so many ways as just a human. That alone is conceptual on a record, you know what I'm saying? I didn't search for what to talk about like how I did on previous projects, like, "Alright, we can give 'em a song where I do ..." Like it was a roundtable, like, "What's this album?" None of this happened. It was just sitting in front of music with the HeatMakerz and !llMind, who executive produced the project, and just talking. I hate — I don't want to sound corny, but it was just that. Just having regular conversations: "So what's been going on?" And music is playing. It was so not, like, it was not generic, man, at all. This album is my favorite album of mine.
MUHAMMAD: OK, I was gonna ask you, you think it's your best, but you pretty much, yeah.
ORTIZ: Yeah it's, and --
MUHAMMAD: Let's not take away from The Brick, though. Let's not.
ORTIZ: Thank you.
MUHAMMAD: Let's not cause --
ORTIZ: No. You can't.
MUHAMMAD: There's a lot of gems in there. I would think for that — let's say that 15-year-old kid who's in the projects right now — you dropped some gems in there. I think that if nothing else is giving them any answers, there's something that just make them look at the possibility.
ORTIZ: Alright, so imagine The Brick as something that you listen to when you was next — The Brick album would be the person that was hustling on the block with you. House Slippers is the OG. Same respect. But a little bit more — you're tuned in a little bit more to this guy. Cause he went to jail, he got money, he's ran around with all the ladies. He's done it. He can still be on. Everyone respects him that's still getting money. He might not be getting — he might have stash money. He got '80s money. He been did it. But you pay attention, you still pay attention. His story's a little bit different. Like I might not — they might call crack something different than I did. Still crack. They're still gonna relate. There's still element of that Brick on this project. It might not just be the kid standing on the corner anymore, but that was still me. That's still a part of my story. I can tell that story because I was there.
ORTIZ: If you listen to a lot of — you know, just because you grow, it doesn't mean you left. That's what people --
MUHAMMAD: That's a misconception.
MUHAMMAD: They think you sold your soul or you fell off or you just unrelatable.
ORTIZ: Yeah. It's incredible to me how the kids — they associate success with like, "Well, he's gone now." That doesn't mean that. That just means we're seeing something else now, y'all. It's ill. I'ma tell y'all about this. Hopefully one day, y'all can come see this. I went to Japan. Yo, you know what it looked like? They just booked me for Bangkok, Thailand. I rode an elephant; imagine that. I ain't leave, I just got stories to tell.
MUHAMMAD: Yeah. By the way, Bangkok is one of the wildest cities I've ever been to. Just had to say if you've never — yo, I'm straight — I don't know if you know cause Tribe gets the whole Queens moniker — I'm the Brooklyn boy of the group.
ORTIZ: OK, yeah.
MUHAMMAD: Yo, straight Brooklyn boy, and I was like, "Yo, this is a city I'll never have to come back to again." Cause it was a little — it was a lot happening in Thailand.
ORTIZ: Yo, I will say this — matter of fact last week I think it was — I was telling my boys, "You know everywhere has a hood, right? You know everywhere I've went has a hood, right?" I don't think they really understand that. They think the hood's the hood, because they live in that 10-block radius. You know, they go up the avenue to shop and then they come back and trap and that's life. I'm like, "Yo, you know if you make the wrong turn in, like, Liverpool, it gets crazy, right?" I told 'em, "We're all over the place." Like, "We not just here in Brooklyn."
And they really can't get it cause what they — it's so crazy that the only thing — one of my dudes called me, I had to really catch myself from being like, "What are you?" and he was like, "Yo, yo palm trees is ill?" I wanted to be, like — I thought he was joking, but he was dead serious. And instead of saying that, I was like, "Yo, I know it's nine over there, it's 6 a.m. over here." He was like, "It's not nine?!" He still didn't fully grasp — music saved my life, bro. I wouldn't have saw nothing. That's why I can relate so well. That's why this album is still — I can still — cause I know. I know what these people see. I know what the average kid that got his basketball shorts on from 9 a.m. all the way 'til it's dark playing ball all day — I know what his life is. I know that, I see it all the time.
MUHAMMAD: So you still impassioned?
ORTIZ: Oh, yeah. That don't leave. That's why I'm restless. You know what my problem is? I mean, I guess it's a good problem — like, I talked to my mom about this: I want everybody to be saved. I feel so bad that I am one of the few from my neck of the woods that sees more. It's so sad, bro.
MUHAMMAD: So then let me just throw something crazy out there. Let's say you go to bed tonight and tomorrow you wake up the mayor of New York City. What is that? What is Day 1? What is the rest of your — what is that like?
ORTIZ: Oh my god.
KELLEY: This is the best image.
MUHAMMAD: Explain that. Like Joell Ortiz, everything that you've gone through, we went to bed tonight, tomorrow you wake up you the mayor.
KELLEY: And we all elected you, too.
ORTIZ: You guys elected me? My god.
KELLEY: Would you live in Gracie Mansion?
ORTIZ: You mean the first move? What's the first move?
MUHAMMAD: Because you say you want everyone to be successful, so.
ORTIZ: OK, maybe I'll start – well, let's all — we're all in agreeance it's gonna start with the youth.
ORTIZ: Cause I'm not gonna be talking about something we can do for tomorrow, I'ma be talking about all of the tomorrows. So I'ma talk to — and I think, from somebody who still goes to the hood, I think it's earlier than what people think. By the time — you can't talk to nobody 15 and shooting guns already. I'm sorry. You gotta catch 'em in elementary school. That's the problem with some of these programs I see, like they're talking to the kid that's already gone. He is — the only thing about him that's 15 is his age. He is already living like somebody 25. His mom smoked crack, his father's gone and the ignorant OG raises him. He's gone. I ain't saying give up, I'm just saying that's not who you target. You gotta — it might sound early: eight or nine, eight to ten. Right before they get to junior high school and get introduced to alcohol, weed, sex. Cause that's what — like, right before.
ORTIZ: So I would set up programs to speak to that youth. I don't know if it would be at community centers, schools — wherever it would be at, there would be a forum and it would happen as much as — I don't know, it would have to be frequent. Even though they young, I'd give them harsh examples. Like, I'd show them stuff. They need to see things unfold — they need to see it.
MUHAMMAD: They're already seeing things, so I'm not — it makes perfect sense.
ORTIZ: Yeah, it's not like they can't — if you dose off and leave the news on and your son is up, he sees something. He sees wild things. Touring overseas and stuff — you know — their news is, like, uncensored. A bomb went off and 60 people — you see a limb on the floor! Stop. No more la la land for these kids, no more imagination. Even though y'all think it's real, like, no it's real out here. I would target the youth, that would be the first thing. I mean, I'd sit down — I'm lying. The first thing I would do is hire a great cabinet. I would hire great people and figure it out. Cause that's what — the best people hire the best people.
ORTIZ: So I would sit around a roundtable and figure out who was gonna be — you know what I mean.
MUHAMMAD: Yeah, I'm starting a campaign right now.
KELLEY: Yeah, Minister of Culture over there.
MUHAMMAD: Yo, I feel that something different really has to happen, and when you come from where you come from, where I come from, and you see — at least for me — I see the path and the direction that things are going into, I'm just like, "When do we slam on the brakes and just be like, 'Time out!'" Whatever has been happening, whatever we've been doing, isn't working. It's just failure.
ORTIZ: It's failure. Well, you gotta understand, it's rooted. It's really rooted, it's deeply rooted. That's why we gotta start so young because it's dudes — I know dudes in their 40s gangbanging. Like I said, these 15, 16-year-olds, man, the people that they being raised by aren't right. And the only thing about them that's 40 is their age, too, cause they're still 15. So they're not really getting an adult — these are the people that are still cutting corners on everything in life.
MUHAMMAD: What kind of household did you grow up in?
ORTIZ: My mom was addicted to drugs, and my father wasn't there. My grandma was my one little — I used to go to her house. But you know, there's but so much she can – you can pull the wool over. You can get over. I was getting over. But I wasn't — to be honest with y'all, I wasn't bad. Like some of my friends were bad kids. Now, looking back, I wasn't bad. I was afraid to lead. I was really, really afraid to lead.
MUHAMMAD: How do you know that, at that age, though? If you're not given any tools, any vision of opportunity, any vision of guidance?
KELLEY: Has to be an example.
MUHAMMAD: There has to be an example.
ORTIZ: Exactly. Like, we would jump somebody, and I'd be the one throwing fake punches. Like, "I don't really want to hit him." My guys are hitting him though. "I don't really want to kick him." It looks like I kicked him hard. And then I was afraid to be like, "Why are we jumping him again?" I wasn't soft, though, I would fight the whole world. I had no brothers, no sisters. I was one of the — there was two Spanish families, in a black project. I was one of them. I had to fight. But I still didn't want to, you know what I'm saying?
I feel like — now that I'm thinking that right now, I feel like I could have changed some of my guys' lives. If I would have knew at 15 and 16 some of the things now — cause there's no truer statement there's no worse thing than a waste of talent. And I've been around some really smart guys. Like, if we'd a saw something else ... I didn't see anything else then either, so I can't really beat myself up, but I still could have tried instead of, like, endorsing.
MUHAMMAD: You can't look back like that, though. Is the music sort of a way of retribution, I guess, for you? Or is it just not even connected in that way?
ORTIZ: You know what, some of the songs — I don't even realize it until I listen back — they're like therapeutic to me. I be writing to myself a lot. I think I'm writing to my fans and I'm writing to me. And then a lot of my fans relate cause they still — they still there.
MUHAMMAD: Living the life.
ORTIZ: Yeah, they still, you know — but I be listening back. Cause I still feel like I ain't nowhere near where I should be.
KELLEY: What do you mean?
ORTIZ: On so many different levels. I'm greatly appreciated by my peers in hip-hop, from the OGs to the youngins. But I don't feel like I'm a like staple. I want people — yo, when they say, "Joell Ortiz," them to be like, "Oh, son. Check it out. He did this, this, this, and this for the culture." Not like, "Yeah, nothing bad to be said about him. Son was ill." It needs to be more than, "Son was ill," for me.
MUHAMMAD: Do you know the formula for getting to that, though?
MUHAMMAD: It's a little bit on the mainstream level. I mean, it's not even a little bit. It's a lot on playing — that's the challenge, in finding a way to be, like, true and raw, you know, but also make the music palatable for the greater masses of that dynamic — that's gonna give you that feeling that you're making that sort of a impact.
ORTIZ: You know what, though? With social media now and the power of the net, I feel like now you don't get to develop behind closed doors.
KELLEY: Right. Yeah, we talk about this a lot.
ORTIZ: You get what I'm saying? It's like everybody gets to see the laundry. Like, "No. We saw you already. Your first impression went out. Bye. You're not ..." You know what I mean? Before, it used to be nurtured, it used to be put in the oven, somebody used to: "Not yet, it's still bloody." Put it back in, and then by the time it got to the public, it was just like, "Yo! That steak's good!"
Now it's just like people are doing videos off their phone and, "Yo, I'm trying to ..." It's a lot different now. This go-round I feel like — just me personally with this album right here — like this is it for me, as far as that stage. As far as me getting to that stage, this has to be it. Now I'm not swinging for that stage — and thank God I feel like I found that delicate balance with this album on how to get to that mainstream cause you need, like you said, you need a little bit of that presence, too, for it to be — even though you've done so much — for it to be validated.
ORTIZ: Like, "Yeah, see and he even took that here, and he played this stage like everybody else," you know what I mean? So I think that this album is gonna do that. The people over at Penalty, they believe in that. Neil Levine, he's done — people are proven. I can't wait, but at the same time I'm nervous because I know your fans love you when you the artist that they want you to be.
ORTIZ: And if it doesn't come across like, "Yeah, my man made it," then it comes across like, "Son is a-ha." It's that thin. You've gotta catch that thin little hair where it's just like, "Told y'all." Where they gotta celebrate it like, "Told y'all. It took long but I told y'all." Rather than: "That one sound mad poppy!" Like, "Son is on the album?" I found it, but I can relate to people going through that struggle, I know what it was. That box, boy, it ain't cardboard. It ain't cardboard. Woo!
KELLEY: And who executive produced this?
ORTIZ: This is executive produced by the HeatMakerz, but !llmind had a fantastic hand in the album. I mean, they kind of worked side by side to be honest with you.
MUHAMMAD: I love !llmind. He's such a down to earth person.
ORTIZ: Awesome dude.
ORTIZ: HeatMakerz awesome dude. My boy Frequency got a joint on there, too. Frequency, he has the "Monster" record he just did for Eminem and Rihanna, so now Frequency — I tried to call him before we got here and it was like, "The Sprint PCS telephone number ..." You know that move? He pulled that move. But it happens.
MUHAMMAD: When is the release? Do you have it lined up or are you still piecing things together? You sound really excited.
ORTIZ: Oooh, I'm antsy! You want to know why? Because, like I said at the beginning of this interview, it's so honest and there's some growth and I'm talking about some good things. It's been a while since I did Joell, you know, like, Joell took a backseat to Slaughterhouse, my alter-ego, and being a quarter of that and that phenomenal ride. That ride ain't over, but getting off it's like — alright, going to Great Adventures, and your favorite ride is the Nitro and you go on it and you come down and then it's just like, "Yo, let's go on Kingda Ka!" And then when you do that, it was fun and you're like, "Let's do Kingda Ka again!" That's what Slaughterhouse was: "Let's do it again!" Then you look over and somebody's coming on the Kingda Ka, and they're like, "Yo, Nitro's crazy!" It's just like, "Word! Let me get back on that for a second, too." So I'm back to my favorite ride: my ride.
KELLEY: We need to do, I think, a little bit of explaining to our audience how Slaughterhouse came to be and sort of that story. We can even just play the track. I don't think it'll be that difficult, but what was that? Can you talk about that conversation? It was Joe Budden's song, right?
ORTIZ: Yeah, it was for his Halfway House mixtape. It was a mixtape song, and he kind of just was like — he had an idea of who he wanted on it. At this time Joe Budden TV was like his little baby, and he had asked his fans like, "If I was to put together the ill combo for a record ..." And the kids were just hittin' him, like, "Royce." "Joell." Whatever. And he reached out to us. And, you know, he told me who was gonna be on the record. I was like, "Yeah, alright. Cool, let's do it," or whatever. And I swear, that song formed the group.
He leaked that record, and the demand was faster than the brand. It was just like, "So you guys are doing a album?" It was just mayhem. Mayhem happened. The fans — I don't know if they know this — but they forced a conference call. They forced us to all get on the phone like, "Yo, what's going on, man? You got time? You got time? I got a little bit of time! Y'all want to try to just put something together?" And all while we're doing that, the fans are spreading the word. We don't even have a name. I remember we just on the phone like, "So what's it gonna be?" Then we just like, "Yo, the first song was called 'Slaughterhouse.' That's what they're tripping over. They're tripping over that record. Aight."
MUHAMMAD: What was the first show? You remember the first show you guys did together?
ORTIZ: I think the first show was SOB's.
ORTIZ: I think the first show was SOB's. Sold out, like, no practice, no rehearsal. Fly in Crooked, flyin' Royce in, like a day before. Just going over, like, "Aight, so we gonna do ..." Cause we didn't even have a catalog! So we was just infusing solo songs, mixed with the one we leaked. It was just – but we quickly found out it wasn't about the set. It was about the kids seeing Slaughterhouse, you know what I mean? Like, "Oh, they're all on the same stage! This is real!"
MUHAMMAD: Do you remember your feelings going out there and seeing that? What did that feel like?
ORTIZ: See, at that time — you know, SOB's is in New York — and at that time, I was probably the stronger — one of the stronger brands in the equation. In New York. I had a record deal, I had a record on the radio and they were coming in my backyard. So I remember them being like, "Alright, so, and then you could do 'Call Me' to close it." Cause it was a familiar radio record and things of that nature. And it's craz, cause I remember now I was seeing — I was able to look off the stage and see the 48 Royce fans, the 60 Joe fans, the 15 dudes who couldn't believe Crooked came from Cali and then the Joell — I seen, I was able to watch and witness: "This is gonna be big, because our solo fans are here," you know what I'm saying? This is being formed by four solo followings. This is huge.
And guess what? Because it's all of us, we're brand new again. Cause there was kids that knew all of Royce and Crook's stuff that were just like, "Yo, that fat Spanish dude is nice too!" That's when I realized how – like, yo, you could be on and still somebody could have no clue who you are, unless that other stage we talked about gets graced. That main stage. So it was just a bunch of kids — we were sharing data, I felt like. Like, "Yo, here it goes, an email address from my fan." It was just so ill and now --
KELLEY: It's like a reverse Wu-Tang plan.
ORTIZ: Yeah, exactly. And now I can't even tweet without, like, the association. Today I said, "Yo, I smell a tour in the making." I'm talking about for House Slippers. They're like, "Where y'all going?!" I was just like, "Oh my god, man." "Y'all better come to ..." And I just gotta answer, like, "Yeah, no doubt we'll be there." I just gotta embrace it, cause the brand is just so — it's so humongous. It's fun.
KELLEY: It's a funny thing about a super group, you know, because why do we want that? But we really want it. You did Lucy Pearl, that's a supergroup and people were with that because of individual --
MUHAMMAD: Actually, that's how Raphael sold it to me.
MUHAMMAD: I mean, originally, it was supposed to be me, Raphael, and D'Angelo, and that's only because ---
KELLEY: Oh my god, I can't talk about that.
MUHAMMAD: We would just always hang out and make music together. But then D was working on the Voodoo album. Saadiq was real serious about it, and then he called me, being serious, and was like, "OK. Yo, listen. You ready?" He never talked to me that way. He was like, "Ali Shaheed Muhammad from A Tribe Called Quest. Raphael Saadiq from Tony Toni Tone." And I'm like, "Where's he going?" And then he held, there was a pause and I was like — "Dawn Robinson from En Vogue." I was like, "Aaaaaaah! My god, what the?! Are you crazy?" So, yeah. That was — we knew.
KELLEY: It's cause that's how we all listen to music, you know? And it's like you make it come to life. And then the idea that you would make something new out of it is — that's the freshest.
ORTIZ: To add to it — what's also great about just being around solo, like, proven people — because now there's inspiration all over the place. Records are — it's not only you and what you are bringing. Now there's another idea and you get to shine, on the way you would, and talk about that. Like, "Good idea!" Like, "I'ma crush this." But you didn't manifest it, you just gonna add to it. That's ill about being in a group.
ORTIZ: That's ill. Slaughterhouse showed me that. Like, Joe coming in with one with a chorus already on it and verse, and you just being like, "Watch what I do. This is crazy." You don't get — it's so much harder as a soloist. It's like, "Oh, I gotta carry them for this long. What am I gonna talk about? Why? I got four seconds before they turn from it."
MUHAMMAD: Did you bring any of that culture of — that stew or having that sort of interaction with anyone into House Slippers at all? Bringing people in to be like, "What would you do with this?" Or did you just box it out and just went in?
ORTIZ: I had a lot of people in. I had a lot of people in.
MUHAMMAD: That's a good thing.
ORTIZ: Oh, yeah. I had — you know what's so crazy though? Is that they started out, or were set up to be, like, music meetings, and some of them we didn't play music in. Some of them we played a song, a few beats, and I'm realizing that that was the gift. The gift was — it was supposed to just be a meeting of the minds, at that time. I wanted to hear what people wanted to hear from me. I started one meeting like, "If you get a new Joell album, what's your favorite track? Go!" "It's the one where he talks about he doesn't drink anymore and stuff like that and what's been going on and how he lost 80 pounds and things like that." Somebody else was like, "It's a pickup from The Brick. He's still on the block but it's like this now." Another one was like, "It saved his life. How music ..." It was just so many different things.
MUHAMMAD: So you take criticism, like, you look for it?
ORTIZ: I love it. I don't even like that word. I hate the word criticism. Anything anybody tells — just share.
ORTIZ: Just share. Share. Share, share, share. My crew is far from yes men. If you a yes men, I'll fire you. And I can tell really, really fast. If you just like, "Nah, yeah." Like, "Alright we gonna talk because Robert's gotta go. Robert has — he's giving this nothing." Why do I want him around? He's giving me nothing? Evoke something. I want something. Make me mad, make me happy, make me something, make me, make me, make me. Make, create! Don't just be blank. I can't have blank people around me. I don't like it.
MUHAMMAD: Could you imagine this cabinet conversation?
KELLEY: I want to work there so bad. What can my job be? Damnit.
ORTIZ: I love to talk away hunger. I always feel like the best conversations are when you be like, "I don't really want to walk in this meeting starving." And then it's nine hours have went past and you're no longer hungry, cause all of your food was for thought. I love to talk like that. I love to talk like that. And this album — especially on the intro, the intro to my album is the title track, "House Slippers." You're probably not gonna be able to — anything you probably want to know, it's in there.
MUHAMMAD: Did you ever feel like you had something to prove? For example, going in and making The Brick — I'll just say this: some of your approaches, it sounds like you — it's like you've been waiting to get into the boxing ring, or something. I'm wondering, did you feel that way and how was that different going into this?
ORTIZ: I felt worse.
ORTIZ: I'ma tell you why. There's nothing worse than — this is gonna sound real cocky, real arrogant, but it's honest. There's nothing worse than knowing you better than people that are getting more of a look than you are. I'm sorry. For whatever reason. I don't care if it's just right place, right time, right session, that dude's a fan and then it worked out, or he manages the dude that knows the guy on OnSmash or Rap — and then he got the look and then he took and it's working for him. I'm not hating. I'm better. Why? So I want to display — every chance I get — I'm not the most friendly guy.
MUHAMMAD: You come off friendly to me. This is my first time meeting you. What did you say?
KELLEY: I said I find that hard to believe.
ORTIZ: I mean in this way: I'm not just gonna say what's politically correct. If you ask me, like, "Of these new acts, who you feeling?" It's slim. And I don't care about saying that. I'm too proud to lie about that. Like, "No. No, he's getting over. And that sound, that'll fade. And this is what's gonna stay. I like son. That grind's ill. He could be better. He could talk about more. I heard that album." All of that. All of that as a fan, cause I'm answering that not as competition anymore, just as a fan. Like, no. I'ma always give my fan answer, and it's always gonna be true.
I got another record on the album that I like, it's called "Q&A." I'm basically saying, "I know what you gonna ask me." And I answer it in advance. I'm very — I firmly believe in my opinion cause I thoroughly research before I talk. If that makes sense. So everybody's entitled to their opinion, but mine matters. Like, mine matters. I know what's going on. Even when you do feature tracks, because of what we all come from — and I'm talking about, like, the MCs — cause of what we all come from, even if some have graced the main stage and I'm right here, whatever, that level of respect, it doesn't come from those accomplishments, it just comes from pen and pad. So they be trying to catch you on a track. Don't think that don't happen. Don't think somebody says, "Alright, Joell Ortiz asked me to be on this. I'm a body." That happens. I don't let it happen. Like, you're not gonna catch me. I approach it like, "Yo, you're not gonna catch me." I don't want anybody to be able to be — with Slaughterhouse this happens all the time cause they're all phenomenal MCs: you can edge me, but you ain't gone body me. And my presence is gonna be felt.
MUHAMMAD: Who's challenged you the most, then, to make you feel like, "Oh, they ..." You felt the edge, you felt a little scrape, you got that nick.
ORTIZ: At different times, all of them. For different reasons. It wouldn't be fair to say — there's been a couple of times where maybe Crooked found a pocket that I didn't find on a beat like, "S---, he caught that flow. Bastard." You know what I mean? "Come on, you didn't --" And I beat myself up, that's how selfish I am. Instead of just being like, "Crook, you bodied," I'm like, "You didn't dig deep, Joell." I do, it's just I'm hard on myself. Or something like, maybe an approach that Royce took in a chorus it's just like, "Come on, man." Like, "Joell, you're better than this." And it's all — I love these guys. I don't know if they'll ever be like, "There's friendly comp that goes on." And stuff like that, but for me it is sometimes. I'll never not be on the corner, in my head, like in a cypher.
KELLEY: What about outside the group?
ORTIZ: Outside the group? I'll say this: just listening to certain people, sometimes I wonder – well, I used to wonder, before I met Em and hung out with him and seen what it takes — I used to wonder how he was that lyrically-inclined, like how he was able to play with words so well. And then I met him and I realized that with all his accolades and with all his success and respect, he's in the studio every day. Every day. If he's not in the studio, he's sick. Like, really. And I can't say the same for me. I can't say the same for me. I'm not in the studio every day. I wasn't. Now I am. When I double back, I'm like, "Yo." And from sharpening my sword and working on my grind and just being there — just because you there don't mean you gotta work every day. That was the biggest thing, like, "You don't gotta cut a record every time, it's just being there that matters!"
MUHAMMAD: Yep. People don't understand that outside, though. They think the whole process is just a fairytale land, like a life of luxury, like you just kicking up on, you know, your feet on the couch every day, all day. And there are many times when I'm in the studio and I'm just — I'm thinking, you know? There's a problem I haven't figured out and it's driving me crazy cause I've been staring at the machine for — and you're not getting the answer there, so it's like, "OK," but you still gotta be in that environment. That's part of the process, and people who come and they see that and they're like — especially people that you've dated. They're like, "You doing nothing here." It's just like, "What do you mean?" Like, "No, this is part of process."
ORTIZ: Right. Those are some of the best sessions, man, where you ain't got nothing to do really. Just for me, where you don't really know what exactly is happening today, but you just: you go in, you pull your computer out, you might just browse the Internet. For this album, some of my favorite records happened like that, because they started out as conversations. They started out as jokes. They started out as, "Moscato? I don't even like that." You know what I'm saying? They just started out human, and then you start painting. Sometimes. Or sometimes you don't. Or sometimes you go home and you think about that conversation. It's just crazy. You gotta be there. Em taught me you gotta be there. He don't cut every day, but he's in there. That's it. This is it. This is livelihood. That's it. This is it. This is what matters to me. I used to finish up and be, you know, "Let's go out. Let's find some bad broads. Let's hit the – oh, this is popping." Stuff like that. I'm not saying don't have fun. I'm just saying prioritize, man.
MUHAMMAD: The keys to success then. You're saying there's — you can be on the grind.
ORTIZ: It's not even that, son. It's realizing that the fun is in the studio. This might sound crazy: now work is going out and clubbing. That's work now, cause I gotta show my face. "He was there, he was there, he was there." I used to look forward to that. Now I'm just like, "Why can't we lock in Tuesday? Who did you bring? Who's coming in?" Now that's the party. "What do you mean I can't go clubbing?" That's what I feel about the studio. "What are you talking about? Why didn't you tell me you booked Tuesday?" I'm panicking. It used to be the other way around. And that's the win.
That's why I stopped — that's why I lost all this weight and stuff like that, too. Because one day I got up — I never forget, it was September 3, 2012. I got up and I'm feeling like crap, again. I went hard that night, and I'm getting up, I'm brushing my teeth and the first thing that popped in my head was, "Yo, I hope I don't gotta go to the studio." Like, "Do I got anything to do? Do I got any radio interviews? What do I gotta do today?" Like, "I feel like crap." And in that very same moment, I said, "What are you talking about?! You live in this place that you brush your teeth — this, everything you got is from the studio. You are thinking wrong, young man." And I say, "Yo, you gotta stop drinking for a little bit." And then a week turned to two weeks. I said, "You did two weeks. Do a month. Just clean up." And a month turned to, "Just go to Halloween. You could go to Halloween. You did September. Do October." And then Halloween came and I didn't drink and I was like, "Aight, Thanksgiving makes sense." I was setting those same short-term goals we was talking about, and then it turned into 18 months of no drinking and working out and all types of — a whole different life change. I learned, man, it's all a mindset. It's all a mindset. The studio has been the only reason I've been able to smile.
MUHAMMAD: Does this mean that — I'm gonna go out there on the limb and just ask it: can we get more Joell Ortiz albums? Not the mixtape — because I feel that you have a lot to say. Clearly, just in this conversation of how you see life and how you would direct certain things and set up certain things that help out people in this situation or inspire people in this way, I feel like we need a lot more of that from you. Or we could use a lot more of it if you'd be so inclined.
ORTIZ: Man, I — first of all, I appreciate that coming from you, just wanting anything I'm talking about, anyway.
MUHAMMAD: I mean, you know you carry New York. I don't know if you know it, but to me, you're of that KRS ilk. And there's not a lot of that. And where we are now, 2014 and moving forward — everything that you've done is great, but with where you are now, with the passion for the studio --
ORTIZ: I gotta — cause this is a moment. This feels crazy. I'd love to. I'd love to continue to make good music. I'd love to do 150 more Joell Ortiz albums. You can't promise it.
MUHAMMAD: Nah, you can't.
ORTIZ: All I can say is I'd love to. And I guess I'll be able to — whatever happens from here, from House Slippers, will kind of determine that. Because at the same time that I'm nervous about how well it's gonna be received, I'm also nervous about the 15-year-old that's just, "This don't sound like what's out there." Like, "Hey, uh uh. Music, that's not what it --" I'm banking on honesty and realness coming across for everybody. I don't know if everybody's ready to accept — to hear it, though. What I'm trying to say is, if I can't be me, I'm not doing no more music.
MUHAMMAD: That's fair.
ORTIZ: You know what I'm saying? Cause, yes, there's other ways to coexist with what's going on, but I refuse to compromise me, for that. So I'ma give you this, this is me, this is what my core loved, still loves, I love, my mom loves, my close friends love. It's all coming from a place of love and no other — nothing else. What the producers loved. It's all coming from good places. Now if you can hear this, I don't mind you not being a fan, but don't rule — push it to the left cause you stuck on the right, what's being shoved.
I want a fair chance. I was always one of those dudes that was just like, "Man, I am so far from mad at this stuff, it's crazy." I love some of those records that come on at 1:30 once — it's great for what it is. I just want things to coexist. It's kind of like what I was talking about, talking to the eight and 10-year-olds, like give them something — let them pick. Can everybody pick? Can it not just be like, "This is what you gotta like in hip-hop now." Can it just be like, "Yo, there's this, and then there's this, and then there's this. OK, you want that? That's dope. OK, we got another order of that!" I feel right now it's just like, "This is it!" So I'm afraid, too — it's been a while now that they got substance. A couple of people are rhyming and giving some — you know, but majority, man, these little kids are just getting taught to dress fly and dance.
KELLEY: I don't know, man. I go to shows — I go to shows a lot.
ORTIZ: On the main stage.
KELLEY: Alright, yeah, that's fair. That's fair. But I go to pretty big venues, like I was just at Irving Plaza last week at The Underachievers show — that was all teenagers. I swear to god, there was nobody over the age of 21 there, and there's no reason they're listening to that music. There's absolutely — how did they even find that?
ORTIZ: What do you think drove them there? In your opinion?
KELLEY: The Internet. And linking with the right people. And visuals. And I think that you do that and you've done that, and Slaughterhouse has done that.
ORTIZ: Well, maybe I'm just scared then. Is that right to be?
KELLEY: It's a scary thing.
ORTIZ: It's been so long since I did a solo project, maybe I'm just scared.
MUHAMMAD: You in your own head right now?
ORTIZ: Yeah. I'm always in my own head. I crumble up pieces of paper, I do all types of stuff. It's been a while. Like when you get back on a bike, you can't wheelie for a block like you used to. You pick it up, and it falls, then you pick it up like, "I'm scared, but I'm sure I'll wheelie. I guess."
ORTIZ: You know what I'm saying?
KELLEY: I have some questions about battling in general, which is funny for — I guess maybe it's scary to say you're scared when you come out of a battle tradition, or something like that. But you talk about how everybody has everything they — you give them everything they could possibly criticize you with on the intro track.
KELLEY: Does that mindset stay with you forever? Why are you bringing back Total Slaughter?
ORTIZ: Oh, Total Slaughter.
KELLEY: I mean, how does this — cause that is a thing I think the kids don't know about, is the SMACK DVDs and how crucial that was for a while and how that still influences people they hear.
ORTIZ: You know what I feel like? I feel like Total Slaughter is giving that scene that stage. Like, we're able to help them with that. People are gonna — there's a big battle audience. But we're about to like bring it to a — it's gonna be much more noticed now. We're inviting, come one, come all, this is what battling — here's a stage. We taking it from Irving Plaza to the Garden, you get what I'm saying? Cause I don't want to take anything away from them kids that are battling. The reason we're even doing this is cause we're fans of what they're doing.
See Slaughterhouse is an MC-driven group. Battling is the forum for lyricism in its purest — no music. I am the personality, pay attention to me and me vs. him and that's it. We catch ourselves on tour checking those battles. That's how it happened, just being like, "Yo, imagine we ..." That's how all of our stuff happens: "Imagine we ..." And then the right cabinet: "You know what? We could do it like this. This is how we could make that." And then that's that. But these kids man, they are nice. They're nice. They're basically — it's turned into a show. It's like a play. There's more things than just — the reason people pick a winner is more than just like, "Yo, son was better." It's the approach, it's the flow, it's the joke, it's the pause, it's the play on the way he battles. It's a play! We just bringing the play to Broadway. Like, Aight, everybody check this out, this is what's going on." And that's why the battle kids, they're excited about it. And even some of them, when we were putting it together and filming it, they were just like, "Man, I was — I ain't never been this nervous." You know what I mean? And it's just like, "Yo, don't even stress it, man." And that let us know the stage we're giving them.
MUHAMMAD: That's dope.
KELLEY: You also mention some of your competition — I feel like that a lot, like we don't get enough shine. Whatever. I don't even need to talk about it. But saying that so-and-so knows somebody at OnSmash or Rap Radar or whatever and that's how he gets on — I mean, you have had a lot of success with the hip-hop media, Unsigned Hype in the Source and Chairman's Choice and all that kind of stuff. What do you think is better? That type of journalism where it's like, "This one, this one. Five mics, four, three." Or long explainer-type articles, or long reported stories like, "I went with Joell to Williamsburg and I met his mom and I did this." Do you prefer one to the other? Do you pay attention to any of it? Do you think any of it has any effect on your career?
ORTIZ: Oh, yeah. Absolutely has an effect on my career and I pay attention to everything.
ORTIZ: People are fans of Joell, not the rapper. Kids that come to my show are fans of me, like the things I stand for, the things I talk about, the, "Yo, he could very well — if music didn't work out, he could be at UPS with me." They identify with me. That matters. Like, meet my mom, yes. I think that matters so much more now, too, you know what I'm saying?
KELLEY: So the profile type?
ORTIZ: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
KELLEY: The pictures and the long conversations?
ORTIZ: Yeah, yeah, because you're gonna become fly by night if it's like, "Yo, you heard that song with that guy?" Your brand better be bigger than your music, to me, cause people are not buying into the music anymore — they're buying into the person. Let's be honest: talent has taken a backseat to a bunch of things, now, in the business. If you're good, it's now a plus. "And, he's good! Yo, plus, he's good! Plus, she's good!" Like, "They dress fly, they were at this party, they're cool, they're this, they're associated with duh, duh, duh, duh — and they pretty good, too." But they already won. Like, they're buying into the person, the movement, the word, the slang, the dress, me. Be like me. So when they rocking to a song, it ain't necessarily the song. It's like, "That's son new joint! My man."
KELLEY: Like it's your friend.
ORTIZ: Yeah, yeah.
KELLEY: It's like a social media type like --
ORTIZ: Yeah, yeah. With Instagram, they see what you eat, they see where you go. These people are — every day, I hang out with a fan I never met. That's what the Internet does. That's what social media does.
There's fans that hold onto it. Eminem wrote "Stan" — imagine — if Stan didn't kill himself, he'd be able to really know Em a little bit more now, maybe. I'd say something like, "Yo, just taking a stroll down to duce." There's a kid on 43rd that's like, "Yo, if I go to 42nd and walk up, I might bump into that dude." That's crazy to me! I can't imagine if I was able to listen to like, Das EFX or M.O.P and Billy Danze was just like, "Yeah, man, right here on Sutter and whatever," I would have been like, "He's on Sutter? Billy Danze is on Sutter?! I'm going over there!" Like, "Yo!"
MUHAMMAD: You seem to be really comfortable with that, though, from the social networking aspect. Me, I'm not that comfortable with the whole – like, I love the relationship, but I know people are crazy.
ORTIZ: Yeah. You know what makes me comfortable with that? Cause I feel like things happen when you change the way you move. I was on the train today. I Instagrammed it, at 8th Ave. and 14th St. "Yo, man, it feels good on the train." To some kids, it's unbelievable to them. To me, it's like rather take the train in the city than drive. That's it! There's no nothing. I don't want nothing from that. That's it. I'm a New Yorker that takes the train sometimes, not cause I'm tough, not cause I'm unafraid, just because it gets me to 52nd St. faster than my car and I don't feel like paying $48 to park my truck! For what?! That's a perk of being a New Yorker — the subway system — I use it. I'm comfortable with that. I still go to parties with my manager, Dennis, me and him. That's it, two of us. So what? What's the big deal? If you're gonna harm me, you're gonna attempt to harm me with 95 of us? Or me and my dude? To some people, "This dude's crazy! Ah!" "Yo, he's thorough. He walk around with security." No, I just go party with one dude. That's how I party. That's it! You know what I'm saying? So like I'm comfortable with that kind of stuff cause I don't have to — I don't turn into somebody on these social media outlets. I'm just myself.
KELLEY: Maybe also people are different because they have more access. Like maybe there are fewer people trying to get that little piece of something because you give 'em a little piece every day anyway.
KELLEY: It's a different era.
MUHAMMAD: You know what my problem is? Is that someone will say something and then it's like — I love the interaction most of the time, but it's just that one or two ... And that's the one that I'm like, "I really need to talk to you." And everyone's like, "Don't address that." I'm like, "I have to address --" this is the person — I'd rather them now be in my living room.
ORTIZ: I get you. I can tune that out thought.
MUHAMMAD: I don't know how to tune that out.
ORTIZ: I got you, I got you.
MUHAMMAD: So then I just get to a point where I'm just like --
KELLEY: That's your other book.
MUHAMMAD: Yeah, I need help.
ORTIZ: You know what helps me with that? Maybe this'll help you. It's the fact that — how many people occupy the earth now?
KELLEY: 8 billion?
ORTIZ: It's in between 8 and 9 billion, right?
KELLEY: I think so.
ORTIZ: And they commented on your s---. You know what I mean? They commented on you. I love that. Like, you chose — I put a picture up yesterday. It was a nice day, and they had opened the pool in my complex and I went swimming and I took — I told my lady, "Take a picture." Whatever. And it was mad people that was just like, "Oh, man!" La, la, la. "Was it fun? This is great. Yo, that dude – yo, you having a blast. Yo, you put on some weight?" And then it was one dude that was just like, "Yo, you got a mad round basketball head. Never noticed you without a hat." And it's just like, "Yo, fam! Why?" And then you just gotta be like, but he's watching! He's a fan! Haters are your biggest fans. And that's when I'll be like, "Aight, cool. It's cool." That's how I deal with that.
MUHAMMAD: Thank you.
ORTIZ: I just try to – cause, yo, there's so much more he could be doing rather than being like, "You know what I didn't like about Tribe! You!" It's like, really, fam?
KELLEY: Right away, went there. Don't even joke.
ORTIZ: I laugh those off. Those are fun.
KELLEY: OK, I wanted to go back cause you mentioned M.O.P. and I liked "Roll Deep" with Tego.
ORTIZ: Oh, thank you.
KELLEY: And that's the 20th anniversary of that album.
KELLEY: Did you listen to them? What were you doing in the '90s?
ORTIZ: I was being a little kid in the projects: flipping on dirty mattresses, playing tag, playing basketball, listening to hip-hop. And those dudes, I mean, "How About Some Hardcore?" I remembered looking at that video going, "Yo, he's got a TEC-9!" Like, "Yo, he has a hoodie with — he just lifted his hoodie and that was a TEC-9! Yo, them dudes is hard!" Being in the party against the wall, sweaty. Like, "How am I gonna make my way over there?" Cause in the early — I don't know, we were dancing to hardcore hip-hop. I was getting — we was grinding to hardcore. You didn't wait for reggae. It was, "How about some hardcore!" You still looking down at the fatty like, "Yeah." I miss that.
I just remember their energy, cause their energy never changed. They always felt like the grimy, Brownsville — the two guys like, yo, man, you don't really want it with those guys. They're not playing fair. They're in a poverty-stricken neighborhood and they're rockin'? Leave them alone. And the music just felt so — it just felt so live. It felt in front of you. This is pre-knowing the process. These guys performed when they recorded, I feel like. Me being a dude that goes in the booth – sometimes the paper might be in front of you and you're trying to own it, you're trying to memorize it and own it so you can deliver it the best. I feel like these dudes used to know all the records. Like it was like in front of a crowd! And they still come across like that, man.
I know both of them dudes: genuine, nice guys, cool dudes. I'm proud of them cause they mark — they put a nice little stain in there: We were here, M.O.P. was here. M.O.P. was here. I want something like that. M.O.P. was here. You can't tell me M.O.P. wasn't here. There's been a couple, you know, came and went. M.O.P. was here. They were here.
KELLEY: I just got another idea for our New York show.
MUHAMMAD: Oh, yeah. That's something else we gotta talk about. Yes.
KELLEY: Alright, so this whole like Brooklyn thing. So now we're talking to the outside New York audience, the people who don't live here, can't picture Sutter. There's this idea about Brooklyn as a brand, and then there are all these stories about Williamsburg and East Williamsburg and what that looks like and the issues that are there. On the new album, do you address any of that from your point of view or from your family's point of view? I mean, what does it look like on the other side? Cause people talk about gentrification and you're the other side.
ORTIZ: Not for no particular reason, no, I didn't talk about that on this album. That wasn't the zone I was in. I didn't even feel like entertaining that conversation. But the Williamsburg I know isn't that anymore.
KELLEY: Yeah, why would you, sorry — why would you not want to entertain the conversation?
ORTIZ: Oh, no, no particular — it just wasn't what I was talking about.
KELLEY: Got it.
ORTIZ: This album's about me, you know what I'm saying? It's not about — even though that's a part, it's not — cause all that really happened, in my opinion, was some people that used to live in Manhattan got scared after the tower dropped and they came across the bridge. That's it. Yo, they just bumped. "I'm gonna go to another borough," and we were the close one next to the bridge. That's it. That's all I really — you can dress it up how you want.
Some kids that knew about credit earlier, they got they credit up and they go there and I'm the face and we get the apartment with that and then I move in six people and that's how we pay the rent. Like, they're not better. These people aren't better than the neighborhood. Whatever. Anyway, that wasn't something I wanted to talk about. But I will say there's a lot of bars, there's a lot of skateboarders. It has changed. The same blocks where some of these people are walking Yorkies, you would have got shot on if you didn't live in the neighborhood.
ORTIZ: In that respect, I'm happy it's not like that. In that regard. Like, yay, people can walk down Bedford. Congrats. The other side is like, "Yo, you my neighbor. I been here for 25 years. Say hello to me. You just got here." That's how I feel about that. As far as all the, "Yo, man, they're pushing the ..." Yeah, but it's all, I guess that's on the — I don't occupy Williamsburg anymore. I used to hang out there. I got into it with one of the bouncers; I don't like going over there no more. Because I feel like the rooted people are changing, too, now. They're angry at everybody. They walking around, "Get out of here!" I don't really — the energy over there, it don't work for me that much. People say it's artsy and stuff like that. Yeah, you might see some graffiti up and see some stuff like that — I don't really identify with that. I felt like art used to just be fun. And it's way more looking left and right, judging, than fun, over there now. It used to be fun. I used to play tag in toxic barrels, there was a lumber yard that had barrels. I don't even know what that stuff was. We used to play Manhunt. It was fun.
KELLEY: We used to play Manhunt.
ORTIZ: Yeah, we used to hunt, try to find each other, like jump off the top of tractor trailers and land on plastic barrels that were filled with substances I don't even — I probably got asthma because of it. Stuff like that, and it was just fun and that was my neighborhood, Williamsburg. And you knew — the street lights came on, go home now because it gets real. And now it's just like, "Yeah, man." It's just — I don't know. It's corny, it's fake. I don't like to be around fake. And I know I'm not being very conscious right now, but, yeah, if I play, my fans is coming from somewhere else anyway, just coming to that venue where it's at. So I don't care.
KELLEY: I mean, I think it's a feeling that's pretty widely felt in the city.
ORTIZ: It's corny.
KELLEY: And I think that it's vaguely understood outside of the city, but I think that we have to say it directly.
ORTIZ: You gotta say it. Cause let me tell you something. Brooklyn, to this day — you're a DJ. When you ask about — Brooklyn's last. When you ask about the boroughs, Brooklyn's last. Why? Cause Brooklyn is it. I'm sorry. "Yo, if you here from Queens --" You save Brooklyn, because they in there heavy, their presence is felt and it's always like, "Yo, them kids." We carry something, man. That competitive nature. Being from Brooklyn means everything to me. I'm competitive about everything because I grew up in Brooklyn. Dog, me and Joe, yo, when I was heavier, I knew I couldn't beat him in a race. But just cause he knew he could beat me in a race, I raced him. You ain't beatin' me. Like, "You crazy?" I'm the person I am because Brooklyn shaped me.
I'm sorry, but don't come to Williamsburg now and — that's not gonna be indicative of the Brooklyn I know. Don't come here and be like, "Oh, yeah." No. No. First of all, you couldn't have met me on Bedford without me, before. So the fact that you standing here, like, "We've been here for 15 minutes" is crazy to me. I'm just being real. No, the reason I sound like this is cause it was real. I got beatings for going up certain blocks, like, "What you call and told me you was on? What the?" "No, I just went because I hit the ball far and it rolled that way." "You lose that ball. You don't go up that street. You know that." That's not what Williamsburg is now, and I'm happy that people can chill and stuff like that but, please, no one — we were talking about Brooklyn being rough and stuff cause it was rough. Williamsburg was rough. I'm from Greenpoint, Greenpoint was rough, Greenpoint's still rough.
KELLEY: I mean, it was very productive also.
ORTIZ: Yeah, I know. But the people I'm talking to, the people I hang out with, they didn't benefit from any of them condos.
ORTIZ: If anything, they're figuring out how to get them out of there. They're not giving up. They're not saying, "Yo, we bout to build up right here in this little space in between your Chinese food and your laundromat. Anybody willing to help?" They're not doing that. They're just going, "Ugh, could a lot more rent if this wasn't a project." So that's it. Ain't nobody benefit. Except, you know, I feel like some of the kids, at least they're seeing something else. There was no condos around when I was there and it was nothing else; it was the projects and then it was just houses, like residential houses and stuff. And those people, though we were just across the street, they acted like we weren't human. It was just like, "No, that's the supermarket that the project people go to. We go to this one." So now it's kinda like everybody's kinda coexisting but no one — we're not benefiting. If anything, there's people coming through the project developments, taking pictures, figuring out how to co-op them.
ORTIZ: Rather than like "Yo, let's see if we can get a team of guys from here to help with it." They're not doing none of that stuff.
KELLEY: So if you were the mayor, that's what you'd do?
ORTIZ: If I was the mayor, that wouldn't be the first thing I talked about. Like I said, I would talk to the kids. I don't know. That whole — cause the big — let me just tell you how the kid that's still in the project thinks, because this is how I used to think. I used to think if you had a credit card, you were rich. Like, "Yo! Oh shoot, he ain't pay cash." I'm talking about, that's how rooted it is, y'all. It's way deeper than that — it's that crazy. Like, we didn't know the difference between leasing and financing, you bought that, you got good — it was just like, "He got a Benz?!"
It's far. It's far. The gap, it's more spread than everybody knows. It's really, really spread. So I gotta talk — first and foremost, as the mayor of New York, I gotta sit down with some really, really young minds. And talk to them and try to guide them somewhere, like show them something else. Trips outside of the neighborhood. "Come on, y'all, we going over here. Let me show you how this is. You see how that looks?" I gotta show them other stuff because these kids only know the same set of swings, the same sliding board, the basketball rim that's bent — it's not helping they jump shot. You know what I'm saying? That's all they know.
KELLEY: Sometimes I think, though, that what money really gets you is a way out of trouble. Cause I don't know if they teach rich kids "This is what credit is" early. But if you do get in trouble, then your parents bail you out. And I wonder --
ORTIZ: Money can be a problem, though. Money can be a problem if you don't know. You just don't know. I got signed to Aftermath. I got a big, big, big check, and I didn't know. So I didn't do all good things with the money. That was a problem. I wish I would knew some of the things I know now with that — just that, just something like that. I would have did things different.
KELLEY: How did you get out of that?
ORTIZ: Out of what?
KELLEY: The Aftermath deal.
ORTIZ: I called Dre and asked him to let me go off the label. A mistake, in my opinion, being honest with you. I didn't know.
KELLEY: And how'd you get out of Shady?
ORTIZ: I'm not out of Shady. We're still over there as a group.
ORTIZ: Yeah, we're still there as a group.
KELLEY: Oh, OK.
ORTIZ: I saw Dre at the Grammy's and he was like, "See what hard work does? You still here in the family." You know what I mean? But I feel like it was too short-lived, like I didn't give it — I was so excited. I was so anxious. My window was open. And then he was like, "Alright, so we gonna wait for the Detox and then one Em album and then you." I was like, "No! I'm not waiting. Come on Dre." And he was a standup dude, because you know people can jam you. Like, "I don't really care if you want to wait or not. You're here." And he was just like, "I don't want you to go, but I ain't gonna hold you up." I think about that decision. I think about all that stuff.
But I'm just talking about a kid, a raw kid off the block getting — I didn't even have a bank account. My first check from Aftermath was when I established a bank account. Matter of fact, I didn't even have the proper identification to open the bank account. That's when money's a problem. I was too raw. I was still in the hood. We gotta teach these young kids, man. We gotta talk to the really, really young kids so that when they run into a lump, they run into more — that lump turns it into more lumps — instead of just, "Remember when I had a lump?"
MUHAMMAD: Well, I don't know if that's a blog or a book.
KELLEY: Or a platform.
MUHAMMAD: Absolutely a platform. This conversation is definitely a platform. I'm like 2020, Joell Ortiz, New York City. Just throwing it out there.
KELLEY: Get those donations in now.
MUHAMMAD: With the music there's definitely a platform, but I think what you have to say is important. So the music is definitely a good medium to get it out there, but just in this conversation, I feel like there's more you — I don't want to say should, not to put it off on you like that — but I'm like, yo, you could easily write a book and it would be something that would be beneficial.
ORTIZ: Man, thank you. I guess that contributes to my restlessness, cause there's more to me. It's like, once you get a grasp around your purpose, it's unsettling. You want it to happen now. Like, "I know, I know! Everybody pay attention: I know what I'm here for. I know what I'm supposed to do, I know who I'm supposed to talk to. Everybody, now. Now." And it just doesn't happen like that. So yeah, there'll be more of me than music. It matters to me. It started out as a love of music and then it turned into a love of the culture, and now it's just a love of humans. Music taught me about life. It's so crazy.
MUHAMMAD: This is an awesome conversation.
KELLEY: Thank you so much.
ORTIZ: Thank you guys for having me. Word.
Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.